CMO Interview: Domino's Allan Collins on tapping social and AI for consumer engagement

We catch up with chief marketing officer of the ASX-listed pizza maker to discuss about the rising dominance of earned media, using data insight and artificial intelligence to win over consumer, and brand management

Allan Collins
Allan Collins

It’s been a year of stellar sales and international expansion, technology advancement and food menu improvements for ASX-listed pizza maker, Domino’s. But equally, consumer data breaches, franchisee complaints and a legal dispute with a technology supplier around its flagship tracking app have made it a difficult year for brand management.

For Domino’s CMO, Allan Collins, customer response and connection provide the foundation of his marketing strategy, and social and owned media are his preferred tools for engagement and feedback. And whether it’s vegan cheese or putting avocado on pizza, using artificial intelligence to scan quality quality and give consumers a real-time view into the product, or creating the next piece of video content, there’s no doubt the business is actively using consumer insight to inform strategy, operations and product development.

“We are always taking that insight,” Collins tells CMO. “Facebook is the dominant social network for us and means we can have so much more of a meaningful dialogue with the customer. We’re posting videos, comments, and tracking feedback to then react to it. And we do react.”

Responding via menu improvements is one such way. For example, Domino’s reintroduced its puff crust pizza after receiving more than 5000 likes on Facebook to put it back on the menu.

“Vegan cheese also surprised us – so many people wanted it,” Collins says. “It makes your job easier too as you’re listening to the customer.” 

Collins was ranked first in the 2016 CMO50 list, and has been with the organisation since January 2007.

AI-powered engagement

The latest social media informed initiative is Domino’s ‘Pizza Checker’, launched in November and based on the company’s DRU AI platform. Created in partnership with Dragontail Systems, the tool is designed to ensure pizzas meet company and consumer standards.

Using a camera mounted about the pizza cutting bench, the tool scans a pizza and compares its size, toppings and temperature against the database of products and their ingredients to ensure it meets the criteria. The image is then sent to the consumer, who can tick it or ask for it to be remade. Collins expects Pizza Checker to be the most significant technology introduction for Domino’s going into 2018.

“Our biggest complaint on social media is that the pizza doesn’t look like that or wasn’t made properly. DRU Pizza Checker solves that,” he says. “It wasn’t really done from a marketing point of view, but an operations point of view for quality control. Once I got involved I saw immediate its potential on consumer engagement.”

Another instance of product quality control delivered through social insight was around the launch of ‘Extreme desserts’ in November, and the new icecream sandwich.

“Stores were making these and putting them in the freezer,” Collins  says. “We watched it on social media and everyone was saying the cone was too hard to eat. So we changed our operational procedures, and worked with staff to leave the cones out of the freezer. 

“We see a consumer concern or can see complaints on social media, and before it becomes a bigger problem, we fix it.” 

New brand activity

In December, Domino’s supported the launch of its latest food campaign, ‘Free your Flavour’, by putting CEO, Don Meij, in front of the brand’s 1 million Facebook followers on Facebook Live to talk about its new chicken, bacon and avocado pizza.

The campaign is about showcasing that the company invests in its food, Collins says, and is being supported by a major TVC. Breaking with tradition, the ad sees Domino’s moving away from voiceover and price-based content to what Collins describes as a “food porn” approach. Two days in advance of launch, loyal Domino’s customers were notified first about the new menu additions via its ‘secret menu’.

“This is different to five years ago – you have to give consumers what they want,” Collins says. “It sounds so easy, but often businesses will think those customer requests are operationally too hard, or too expensive. Whereas for us, the answer is never no, it’s how do we do it.” 

It’s not just consumer feedback Domino’s is seeking, but also that of its staff. “We have an internal Facebook site, and it was actually a store employee that came up with the idea for putting a chocolate lavacake inside a shake and mixing it up to make our chocolate lava supershake, which is going well,” Collins says.

Overall, Domino’s could be doing 20-30 trials at any point in time across different markets, using social insight to guide its strategy.

“Social media is really about opening yourself up in all different ways,” Collins says. “Traditional qualitative and quantitative research is now more of a benchmark of where we sit against the competition or where movements have been over time, and a brand health check with consumers.” 

Of course, traditional insights still come in handy, and the company’s ‘We care’ campaign, launched in May, was in direct response to qualitative research that suggested consumers felt the brand had moved so fast and delivering product so quickly, quality must be compromised.

“They don’t realise it’s the faster ovens, or when they make an online order we can track how it’s progressing and start it before they finish completing the order,” Collins says. “The other major insight from the research was concern that stores don’t care, or the staff care about service. Which they do. Which is why we feature our franchisees on our campaign, to show they do care about amazing products and service.”

It’s this push towards owned and paid social channels that Collins believes is triggering paid digital media’s decline. “Demand is still there, and for some companies that don’t have owned media or are big in social, they’re forced to go down traditional paths,” he says.  

“In the last 12 months, we’ve been in more control over our own destiny, whether it’s through paid social or our owned media. As a result, we’re becoming more of our own content provider. We are at the forefront of this shift. It’s the biggest fracturing of what’s happening for me in terms of media.

“We have our own website, EDMs, ordering app, pizza boxes, in-store communications. We have 1 million people on our EDM database. We can easily attach a video at the bottom of that, and it costs nothing. And we can get an insight from Facebook and do something with it via Facebook Live in 60 minutes. And our biggest fans are seeing it.

“That’s the biggest change in terms of where it’s going for marketers.”

As a result, Domino’s continues to upskill its dedicated in-house team on social media, which Collins describes as the storytelling team.

“We have hundreds of stories to tell, and we put together a program to tell those across all the different platforms,” Collins says. “For example, do consumers know we have two full-time chefs? Or that we make the dough in-store versus buying it? Or of the farmers we work with, or the charities we support or young people who want to start their own business?

“That’s the mandate for the social media team; it’s not just campaigns on air, it’s all the stories happening inside Domino’s.” 

In line with insourcing other skills, Collins’ next priority is an in-house film lead for filming and editing content. At the same time, it’s the person who can tell the data story in easiest, most compelling way, that leads the discussion, he says.

“The power of BI is all about the power of storytelling,” Collins says. To do this, Domino’s has weekly meetings, and regularly shares insights with its franchisee advisory council and stakeholders departments.

“It’s not about opinions. Opinions are to be tested and everything has to be validated,” Collins comments. 

Consumer data

Reliance on data can come with a brand price, however, something Domino’s was forced to confront when it experienced a customer data breach in October. An online ratings system was found to be the source, which saw spammers sending phishing emails to pizza customers using their email addresses, names and transaction history with specific stores. No financial data was exposed.

In response, the company has established a strikeforce team and is working more closely with partners to adhere to current and forthcoming Privacy Law standards that come into effect in Australia in 2018. A dedicated webpage about the breach was also created.

“You have to trust partners you work with and unfortunately in this case it was a partner, not us,” Collins says. According to comments made by Meij in October, Domino’s stopped working with the third-party in July, but won’t name the partner responsible.

“We are going above and beyond with a new team to ensure third parties adhere to more than the standards, and working closely with them to ensure that,” Collins says. “We’re also being really open and honest with consumers. With a third party, you’re not as close to what’s caused it. We tell the consumers as much as we know.

“Because the consumer doesn’t care if it’s a third party, it’s all Domino’s to them. The biggest priority we have going forward is to make sure the consumer is protected 1000 per cent.”

Transparency is also the approach Collins is looking to take once a new enterprise bargaining agreement is in place between Domino’s HQ and its franchisees. The industrial relations exercise follows disputes and concerns around wage underpayments and profitability across the network of stores. So far, a nationwide audit program of franchisees has resulted in 1 of its 322 stores being referred for further audit after indicating wage underpayments had occurred.

Since February, $1.25 million has been recovered under audit processes, and the group is working with Deloitte on systems and methodologies to assist with identifying such issues on an ongoing basis. The full audit is due to be completed in December.

“It’s heartbreaking when you work so hard on the consumer side, and there may be a franchisee who has done the wrong thing and it effects the brand,” Collins says in response.  “It goes to show we are all stakeholders and we’re all one team. It’s marketing, operations, franchisees – we’re all so much more accountable now.

“It’s great we have acted so quickly on it. It’s not directly related to a pizza purchase but it impacts what people think about Domino’s and it’s therefore important to us. We are a good corporate citizen. It’s unfortunate some franchisees might have not done the right thing. You have to put stronger systems in place, be more vigilant.”

Domino’s already runs a live survey with franchisees each day as they login to determine if they’re happy or not with the business. Responses are represented as fish in a fish tank in HQ: If the fish are all green, everyone is happy; if they’re red, they’re not. In addition, franchisees and staff fill out surveys every three months, which marketing collates and presents back to the business.

“We them make that information available, and communicate the company’s strategic plan to all employees and franchises,” Collins says. “We’re all very aligned with the bigger picture. Every three months we have a roadshow as well to provide an update on how we’re performing against that.”  

Despite the brand challenges, Domino’s reported a record financial year in the 12 months to 30 June, with net profits increasing 28.8 per cent to $118.5 million, and A/NZ recording its fourth consecutive year of double-digit network sales growth of 16.6 per cent. Across the group, total network sales grew 18 per cent to $2.3 billion.

Next up: What Domino's is looking to do with voice-based interaction

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